“My boy you should go in for nature.” Sir William Richmond’s advice to Paul Nash on reviewing some of his early drawings.
One of Paul Nash’s friends at the Slade School of Art was Claughton Pellew-Harvey who “had a deep love for the country, particularly for certain of its features, such as ricks and stooks of corn.”
At first I was unable to understand an almost devotional approach to a hay stack and listened doubtfully to a rhapsody on the beauty of its form. Such objects, and, indeed the whole organic life of the countryside were still, for me, only the properties and scenes of my ‘visions’. Slowly, however, the individual beauty of certain things, trees particularly, began to dawn upon me. (Outline p.77)
Nash left the Slade after a year, before he felt he could draw. Professor Henry Tonks told him, “You are like a man trying to talk who has not learnt the language.” But Nash uncovers an affinity with the natural world and through this communion he discovers that he can indeed draw.
Now, however, I would draw this tree in front of me as I felt it. It was exciting drawing this tree thrusting up out of the hedge. It was an oak about to break into leaf. Here and there the yellow green had evolved, but mostly its branches bore the red swollen buds typical of its strength.The spring sunlight struck the wide shoulders of the oak, glancing down its great limbs, which reflected the beams in a pale glow, the round trunk in the sunlight was as white as paper. I did not find it difficult to draw, as I had found the models at the Slade difficult to draw. An instinctive knowledge seemed to serve me as I drew, enabling my hand to convey my understanding. I could make these branches grow as I could never make the legs and arms of the models move and live. (Outline p.91)
To look at any thing
To look at any thing,
If you would know that thing,
You must look at it long:
To look at this green and say,
“I have seen spring in these
Woods,” will not do – you must
Be the thing you see:
You must be the dark snakes of
Stems and ferny plumes of leaves,
You must enter in
To the small silences between
You must take your time
And touch the very peace
They issue from.
– John Moffitt
Nash had learned to draw. In The Prelude Wordsworth called such experiences “spots of time”. For Wordsworth these were moments that rescued him from times of depression or “visionary dreariness” – an emotional and artistic reservoir on which to call in need; I did it once, I can do it again.
There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence, depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse, our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen
– William Wordsworth, The Prelude. Book 12. 208-218
It’s also akin to that poetic and religious dimension Gerard Manley Hopkins called inscape – a unified complex of characteristics that give each thing its uniqueness and, to him, God-given particularity. This epiphany of understanding could be called inscendence – the impulse, not to rise above the world (transcendence), but to climb into it, seek its core.
A love for trees is part of the inscape of Paul Nash’s work and he ascribes to them something mystical, magical and human.
His fascination with trees endured and they are a recurring subject throughout his career. To his friend Gordon Bottomley he wrote: “I have tried to paint trees as though they were human beings … because I sincerely love & worship trees & know that they are people & wonderfully beautiful people.” In a letter to Mercia Oakley he wrote that trees represented “a shelter, a shade, a consoling old thing, a strong kind friend …”
His work as a WW1 artist is full of images of tortured, twisted and broken trees and blasted stumps: “they are people”.
About the centre of this elm-row stood three trees which in spite, or perhaps because of their rigorous cropping had emerged into a singular grace. Their feathered bodies mingled together as they thrust upwards and their three heads fused in cascades of dense leaves spreading out like the crown of a vast fountain. I knew these three intimately.
Kensington Gardens was Nash’s first special place. Another was the what he called the “bird garden” at the family home in Iver Heath, He wrote: ‘It was undoubtedly the first place which expressed for me something more than its natural features seemed to contain, something which the ancients spoke of as genius loci – the spirit of a place, but something which did not suggest that the place was haunted or inhabited by a genie in a psychic sense … Its magic lay within itself, implicated in its own design and its relationship to its surroundings.” Outline p.88
Nash described the garden in his painterly way, unfolding the shapes and forms and their relationships one to the other ‘Each year the grass grew up and flowered and was cut down and made into haycocks. Thereafter it was an open space of meadow invaded to the sight only by the birds, by other small creatures, and by the shadows cast by the laburnum, the chestnut, the tall acacia and the little conical silver fir. These, with a few others and the boundary hedge of beech behind, made up a group that had a curious beauty of related forms, whether seen on a dull day or transfigured by the sunlight or the moon.” – Outline p.88.
Wittenham Clumps became another of his special places. He was to return them throughout his life. This watercolor is from 1913.
Wittenham Clumps is the common name for a distinctive pair of chalk hills capped by beech trees planted in the 18th century on the site of an ancient Iron Age fort. He describes the discovery in some detail in his autobiography,
Wittenham Clumps was a landmark famous for miles around. An ancient British Camp, it stood up with extraordinary prominence above the river at Shillingford. There were two hills, both dome-like and each planted with a thick clump of trees whose mass had a curious symmetrical form. At the foot of these hills grew the dense wood of Wittenham, part of the early forest where the polecat still yelled in the early night hours. Ever since i remember them the Clumps had meant something to me. I felt their importance long before i knew their history. they eclipsed the impression of all the early landscapes i knew. This, i am certain, was due almost entirely by their formal features rather than to any associative force ….- it was the look of them that told most, whether on sight or in memory. They were the Pyramids of my small world.
I had come out to get a drawing of the Clumps. I wanted an image of them which would express what they meant to me. I realised that I might well make a dozen drawings and still find new aspects to portray. But I did not wish to worry the subject. There was one aspect which, had I the wit to perceive it, would convey the strange character of the place, one image which, in its form, would contain the individual spirit. It was this I sought and was bent on tracking down.
An unsought, unsuspected aspect of the hills was suddenly disclosed….I did not at once begin to draw. My landscape studies since I left the Slade had taught me already one thing. It was better to think or to absorb first, before beginning to interpret. (Outline p. 100-101)
And besides, he adds, he had his packed lunch to eat.
Here Nash sounds almost Wordworthian in his determination to let the subject lead him. In The Tables Turned the poet had urged: